Jul 8, 2012

What can Frankenstein teach you about writing?

If this storm develops as I hope, you’ll have plenty to be afraid of before the night’s over.
- from James Whale's Frankenstein (1931)

Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein, or, The Modern Prometheus in a year without summer. Untimely snowfalls kept Mary, Percy, Byron and John Polidori cooped up in a mountain cabin for quite a while, travel being impractical and dangerous.

I’ve always felt that Frankenstein delves into the moral implications of unplanned parenthood. The creature is an unwanted child, the bastard offspring of desire and intellect. At heart Frankenstein is a deeply conservative text that hinges on this apparently simple notion: Just because you can do it, that doesn’t mean you should.

The gods punished Prometheus for teaching men how to use fire. Victor von Frankenstein was punished for creating life against “natural” law. In both cases a sacred trust is broken.

So, what can the tale of Frankenstein's creature reveal to you?

1. Sometimes you are the monster

Make no mistake, Victor von Frankenstein is the real villain here, not the creature. Victor’s the one who decides to create a sentient being without a thought to the consequences. And then – this is the worst of it – Victor rejects responsibility and abandons that creature. He reacts to his abortive child like a sociopathic male teenager.

2. Mad science is another name for magic

The Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
It takes bags of confidence to rock that hairstyle.
Frankenstein, says Brian Aldiss, is the original science-fiction novel: wherein a character sets events in motion and does his grim business in a laboratory. There is no quest-giver, no messenger from on high with orders from a supreme benevolent being.   

Today The Modern Prometheus reads like fantasy; what we know about the processes affecting cadavers, the workings of the nervous system, immune response and organ rejection – all this places the creature outside the realm of possibility. Decaying tissue would only reorganize itself into living matter if time moved backwards.[1]

No-one would think to reinvent Frankenstein without a nod or two to current scientific knowledge. But a) not all writers are scientists and b) scientists don’t know everything. Huge gaps remain in our present understanding of the universe and science is evolving. If you intend to wait until science is perfect – until its mission is complete – to get started on the ultimate science-fiction tale, well… I’d like some of that life-extending potion in your liquor cabinet.

Writing fiction about cutting-edge science, or developments that may be 10, 50, 200 years in the future, is not the same as reporting. Your readers-to-be will forgive you for getting things wrong, but they will admire you for what you get right. They will love you for writing beautifully. For cutting to the core of a real human drama. Thanks to that “realness,” Frankenstein has fans today.

Science evolves. Predictions fail. Focus on the characters, not on gadgets.

Christopher Lee as Frankenstein.
Is there a role this guy hasn't played?

3. It’s OK to explore the gray areas; morality is not black and white

Victor von Frankenstein isn’t exactly a bad person. He’s horrified at what he’s done. As for the monster, it is to be pitied more than feared. It comes to Victor expecting help, but what does it get instead? Revulsion.

I wonder how Frankenstein would have reacted to an undead frog of his own making. Would it have seemed less sacrilegious? Is the real “sin” creating “intelligent” life?

One thing we need to remember is that, in Judeo-Christian culture, the cultural framework that sustains Frankenstein, the template for human beings is the same creator god who made the world we live in. To reanimate a frog or a badger would have been OK, because they weren’t “made in the image of God.”[2]

Real hubris lies in profanation. Frankenstein is doomed because he decided to breathe life into a collection of random organs and body parts. The creature is not a human being but a travesty and it is this that terrifies Victor. He’s created life from garbage and now that the garbage expects something from its creator, he turns away. By its very existence, the monster desecrates the human template. Gnostic parable?[3] Maybe. At any rate, Victor saw fit to exert divine privilege, and this was his undoing.

All good stories show you characters on the cusp of right and wrong. People who aren’t sure about the next step but take it anyway. Make them pay the price, let them earn their rewards, and stop thinking in terms of good and evil.  

James Whale's Frankenstein movies, gripping as they were, sometimes pounded the "evil" key a tad too frantically.
Henry (sic) Frankenstein was very much the mad scientist, referring to the creature as a brute and verbally abusing
his faithful assistant.

[1] Time doesn’t really “move” and the illusion that we’re going forward is just that, an illusion; but I hope you’ll forgive my inaccuracy… Unless you want a treatise on the nature of time, which I am not qualified to produce.
[2] It’s safe to say that “animal rights” was a foreign notion to the Britons of 1816.
[3] A crude, brief summary: in Gnostic myth, human beings were not created by the Prime Mover nor any of its higher emanations, but by the child of cosmic rape, the god seeded in Sophia (Wisdom) by the Abyss. This god born of rape, Saklas (“the fool”), the Blind Idiot God, created matter and the Archons (the planets) to govern it; together they created human beings from clay. (Adam means “red earth.”) No thanks to the Blind Idiot God, human beings were infused with the divine spark, which to the Gnostics was the soul. The Gnostic believer saw the world as a prison and matter as the abode of evil. Curious offshoots of the Gnostic tree included the Ophites, Cainites and Bogomils. The Church Fathers complained that the Gnostics were too diverse and that every week they came up with a new falsehood, so it was very hard to keep track of them.     


What can they teach you about writing? -- is a weekly series of articles drawing on public statements by talented people, and how such statements apply to the act of writing. “Talented people” does not mean they’re entertainers, nor do I expect you to agree with my definition of talent at all times.

In early 2012, I decided to expand the scope of these articles to include remarkable characters in works of fiction. 

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